Explaining Hubert Hurkacz’s request to replace the umpire against Grigor Dimitrov

Hubert Hurkacz, the men’s No 8 seed from Poland, has been on the order of play at the 2024 French Open every day from Wednesday to Sunday in a bid to complete three matches in five days — the first two delayed and delayed by rain.

Hurkacz is regarded as one of the most placid players on the tour, but on Sunday night, during his three-set defeat to Bulgarian 10th seed Grigor Dimitrov, he was involved in an incident so bizarre it almost defied belief.

It was the most surprising character metamorphosis since… five days earlier, when demure Belgian David Goffin baited the hostile home crowd with a finger to his ear, after being spat at in his five-set win over home favourite Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard.

Hurkacz and Dimitrov are friends, which explains how things unfolded, and Hurkacz has a dreadful head-to-head against his Bulgarian pal — losing all five of their previous meetings.

Here, he found himself down two sets to love towards the end of the third, which was heading to a tiebreak (Hurkacz had also lost all six of the previous tiebreaks they’d played together, including one in the first set).

With Dimitrov at 40-30, and the score at 4-5, Hurkacz curved a forehand onto the line — or so he believed. Dimitrov stopped the point, and the umpire, Alison Hughes, a very experienced official, got down from her chair to inspect the mark.

She confirmed that the line call had been correct.

The television cameras backed this up.

Hurkacz didn’t agree.

He repeatedly said “call the supervisor” to Hughes, referring to another tournament official that players sometimes summon when they feel they have been wronged. Dimitrov tried to reason with his friend, but Hurkacz put his hand on his hip, turned to his box, and screamed “What are you doing? So bad.”

This is all within the normal range of a tennis player losing their rag.

What happened next goes well beyond it.

Hurkacz held serve in the next game, but internally he’d clearly been stewing on what had gone on. He sat down at the change of ends up 6-5, still agitated and looking towards his box for some sort of encouragement. Watching it back, it’s possible to divine the cogs in Hurkacz’s mind turning as he rationalises to himself that what he’s thought about doing is a good idea, and should be put into practice.

After closing his disbelieving open mouth, he makes the “substitution” gesture with his hands.

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Hubert Hurkacz indicating his displeasure. (Eurosport)

Then, like a child seeking an accomplice in something naughty, he turns to Dimitrov, who is blocked by the umpire, and asks: “G, you wanna make a change? You wanna continue with the lady here?”

The “lady” in question is the umpire Hughes, who is sat on her raised chair between the players and so can obviously hear what was being said during this increasingly deliberate show of passive aggression. The fact that he was playing a friend may have emboldened his belief that he would find an ally in his opponent; the same might be said of the umpire not being a man.

Dimitrov described Hurkacz afterwards as “one of the nicest guys on tour.” In this moment, he doesn’t look it.

Also in this moment, Dimitrov looks completely bewildered. “Wanna continue with what?” he says.

Hurkacz then feels comfortable enough to wander over to his opponent and continue the conversation. Hurkacz, standing directly in front of the umpire, answers: “No I mean like, do you want to continue with the lady here or you’re fine or you want a change? That’s what I said. Up to you,” with his conviction wavering slightly as he appears to suddenly realise the preposterousness of his request.

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Grigor Dimitrov was bemused. (Eurosport)

“Change what, sorry?” comes the response from a still baffled Dimitrov.

“Change the lady, the chair umpire,” Hurkacz replies.

“Honestly…” Dimitrov replies — the rest of what he says is drowned out by the spectators, who are starting to realise what is happening, but the tone and expression of the Bulgarian makes it pretty clear what he’s getting at. There’s something very relatable about how Dimitrov handles the situation — trying to be diplomatic, but with his inner monologue clearly saying: “What on earth is he talking about?” He’d already had enough to deal with: at the previous changeover he sat down streaked with clay and blood, after cutting his lower arm in a dive.

When the match was over, the expectation was that with the heat of the moment gone, Hurkacz would realise the entitlement and strangeness of his actions.

Instead, his tone was still as though what he had asked for was entirely normal. Hurkacz was asked if he had ever made this request before, and replied: “I think I could have asked before. No, just asking Grigor if he would like to make the change. If not, then we’re perfectly fine.”

He did then add a conciliatory tone: “It’s a clay court, so it’s sometimes difficult when the balls are really close. Definitely, some of the calls, you wish they are a different way but it’s just the way it is and you gotta accept them.”

Dimitrov said that “we all can say very difficult things in the heat of a moment.”

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Grigor Dimitrov attempted to steer Hubert Hurkacz away from disaster. (Bertrand Guay / AFP via Getty Images)

The only example anyone could recall on Monday of an umpire being changed mid-match came 45 years ago in a heated US Open contest between Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe — two of the most inflammatory characters in the history of the sport. That Hurkacz is the heir to those two makes the whole thing even more bizarre.

On that occasion, midway through the fourth set and with a boisterous night-time New York crowd almost rioting, Nastase was so riled by being given a game penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct that he refused to carry on the match. Eventually, the tournament director Bill Talbert bowed to the pressure from Nastase and the crowd and replaced the umpire Frank Hammond — like Hughes, a well-respected long-serving official. McEnroe went on to win the set and the match, and Hammond could be seen crying in the post-match press conference.

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Ilie Nastase at the net with John McEnroe in 1979. (Getty Images)

Hughes may well too have felt quite shaken up by the events of Sunday night and having her competence so publicly questioned.

Hurkacz’s behaviour meanwhile was both out of order and a reminder of the mental pressures tennis players often place themselves under. On Friday Andrey Rublev once again committed aggressive physical acts of self-flagellation on the court during his defeat to Matteo Arnaldi, and this from Hurkacz was similarly uncomfortable to watch. Not as outwardly confrontational, but still the actions of someone who had momentarily lost control.

This year’s French Open can do strange things to people. At a tournament beset by near-constant rain delays, players, fans and staff have displayed symptoms of cabin fever.

As Jamie Murray put it in a conversation on Friday: “The last few days have really killed people’s motivation to be around here.”

Doubles players like British world No 27 Murray have borne the brunt of the disruption — it’s the ninth day of the tournament and some first-round matches still haven’t been played — but some singles players have been dealt a pretty bad hand too. Still, they haven’t done something almost completely without precedent in nearly 50 years of tennis.

The 2024 Grand Slam Rule Book states that: “In each Grand Slam Tournament, the Referee in consultation with the Grand Slam Chief of Supervisors, shall:

“Remove a Chair Umpire and/or remove, rotate or replace any Line Umpire whenever he decides it is necessary to improve the officiating of a match.”

Speaking to well-placed sources who discussed the topic on condition of anonymity to protect relationships, the sense is that this would only happen in the most extreme of situations. The bar is extremely high because, even when a call is wrong, which it wasn’t against Hurkacz, changing an umpire would set a very dangerous precedent. Human error is part of the game and such a public humiliation should only come about in extremis. It is not something that a player should feel able to countenance based on one, not even particularly close call, and it’s an indictment of the way that players on the tours perceive the people making the calls.

Until electronic line calling (ELC) is introduced everywhere (it will be at all ATP Tour-level events next year), incorrect calls will be a part of tennis — and even with ELC some players like Jelena Ostapenko will still have their reservations. The risk for erroneous calls is most acute at clay events like the French Open, which don’t use Hawk-Eye but rely on umpires looking at marks.

On Thursday, Chinese seventh seed Zheng Qinwen was badly let down by the umpire looking at the wrong mark and incorrectly ruling that Elina Avanesyan’s shot had been in. Television cameras showed that the shot had been clearly out. Zheng was aghast — but certainly didn’t ask to switch out the official.

A surreal, otherworldly confrontation over a completely correct call? Yes, it’s been that kind of tournament — but when it’s over, Hurkacz may look back and feel that his head was on another planet.

(Top photo: Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

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